GPS plan to track arsonists

CONVICTED arsonists will be monitored using GPS tracking devices for the first time in Australia under a state government push to crack down on firebugs.

Legislation will be drafted early next year, allowing courts to order post-release monitoring for people caught deliberately lighting dangerous fires - a provision that is restricted to serious sex offenders.

This would mean that, once the system is operating, an offender released from jail would be fitted with an electronic monitoring device, alerting authorities if they get close to a designated exclusion zone, such as a forest or national park.

But despite months of planning and trials, the government admits the system won't be ready for this fire season, because it is still attempting to appoint a company to develop the technology required to track offenders over large distances.

The government says there are about five offenders in the Victorian corrections system who could be subject to electronic monitoring in future.

But as the state prepares for another hot summer, some are questioning why the project - which was put out to tender months ago - is taking so long.

Some experts have also questioned the policy, warning that the number of arsonists who are actually caught represents a very small proportion of people who deliberately light fires.

''They may as well be playing darts in the dark,'' said Paul Read, a research fellow at Monash University's Sustainability Institute. ''It's a very bold and brave precedent, but if they're serious about it, they should trial it first to find how much impact the policy would have.'' Figures from the Sentencing Advisory Council show that between 2005 and 2010, 140 people were sentenced for arson in Victoria, of which 56 went to jail.

In recent years, there have been several high-profile convictions, including that of former CFA volunteer Brendan James Sokaluk, who earlier this year was jailed for 17 years and nine months for deliberately starting the Churchill blaze that killed 10 people and burnt out 36,000 hectares on Black Saturday.

Mr Read said national figures suggested there are up to 18,000 fires that are deliberately lit every year. A recent study in Victoria suggested that only around 1 per cent of incidents led to a conviction.

Janet Stanley, who works with Mr Read at Monash's Australian Bushfire Arson Prevention Initiative, said: ''You can track arsonists, but the proportion of convicted arsonists is just so minute compared to the actual problem. So while it's got some value, it's probably quite costly, the impact will be very low because we still don't know who they are and where they are,'' she said.

The idea to electronically monitor convicted arsonists was put by Ted Baillieu ahead of the 2010 state election, as part of a broader $5 million policy to also use GPS technology to keep track of the state's serious sex offenders.

Corrections Victoria staff also took part in a trial last year, wearing electronic bracelets as they carried out their duties to see how the technology worked.

At present, sex offenders can be monitored, but the technology relies largely on the criminal's proximity to a base unit to pick up a signal, meaning it is limited when the offender is out of range.

The shift to GPS technology would mean that for the first time serious sex offenders and arsonists could be tracked even when they are out of range of a unit.

But the reliability of GPS devices came under a cloud earlier this year, when The Sunday Age obtained Justice Department documents warning that the technology had ''numerous limitations'' - including the risk of dropping out or providing false information about a criminal's location.

Before the election, Mr Baillieu said the policy would allow authorities to ''track the movements of known arsonists in real time on days of high fire danger''. But last week, Corrections Minister Andrew McIntosh was unable to clarify how retrospective the policy would be, whether offenders would only be monitored during the summer, or whether high-risk suspects released on bail could also be electronically tracked. ''Further details of the policy's implementation are still being worked through,'' said the minister's spokesman, James Talia.

Opposition corrections spokeswoman Jill Hennessy said it appeared the government had once again gone for a ''quick fix'' without knowing whether it could actually reduce the risk of crime.

Liberty Victoria president Spencer Zifcak said he would be ''OK'' with electronically monitoring serial reoffenders but would ''absolutely not'' support the tracking of high-risk suspects released on bail.

■ ftomazin@theage.com.au

The story GPS plan to track arsonists first appeared on The Age.

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